Reilly and I
Like most American Jews of my generation, I haven’t had much experience with anti-Semitism. Nor, as I look back, have I ever been very clear in my feelings about it. I grew up during the 1930′s in what is now known as suburbia, and there was, occasionally, something in the air that would be described today as interreligious tension. By the time I was six I had learned to say that the Romans had killed Christ and to react to the name “mocky” by saying “I’m a Jew—and proud of it,” or, if I stood a chance, “Put up your hands when you say that.” But in green and quiet Elmora, nice Jewish children were more likely to encounter winks and snickers than outright abuse, and in a neighborhood where Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish boys were equally caught up in their web of intricate and shifting alliances, there were usually more urgent reasons to get into a fight. I knew why some of my friends’ parents were excessively polite to me, but I also knew—and much more sharply—why my mother was excessively uncomfortable and my father was excessively rude to some of these friends. For anti-Semitism was really a threat to me only in my own home.
The source of the threat lay in what I sensed about my parents, the lingering in their life of another life, whose darkness and ugliness and fear were also present in their word “goy”—the only Yiddish word that they habitually used. It was around these two words—“goy” and “mocky”—that my sense of belonging to a people organized itself: the Reform Sunday schools, with their museum-like spirit, had nothing to do with it. Behind these two words extended the only emotional realities that tied me to a Jewish past: to the slum streets of Linden, New Jersey, where we still went to see my grandmother and where my father had been regularly beaten up as a boy when he carried his pack of window glass through the streets; and to the farm in central New Jersey where my mother’s family lived through their bitter failures, surrounded by the community of “goyim” who hated them. So, at least, I was told and readily believed. But in Elmora most of my closest friends were goyim, and in my heart I hated that ugly, undiscriminating name as much as I hated “mocky.” Inasmuch as I heard the first one a hundred times more frequently than the second, I grew up with a very uncertain sense of Jewish loyalty.
During the war years and their aftermath of revelation, there was no problem about hating anti-Semites, but it was a hatred whose fierceness was often abstract since it had to cross the ocean and attach itself to a people I had seen only in the movies, and since the movies themselves with all of those sleek, deadly Nazis and those rumpled, defenseless victims had left me, at bottom, more frightened than inflamed. In the two years I spent in the Navy after the war, I had several furious fights with Jew-baiters, but mainly I learned to play the service game of good-naturedly insulting each other’s religion, nationality, or region. This comedy of “yids” and “wops” and “ridge runners” performed much the same function for men living in close quarters that “the dozens” had in high school, but it also weakened my Jewish ties in the course of relaxing them. During the following years, I found that the whole issue of being a Jew in America had become relaxed. This was true of the society at large but it was particularly true of the university communities in which I spent most of the next twelve years. In their self-consciously liberal atmosphere, one could even have the feeling that it paid to be Jewish; and what anti-Semitism there was seemed genteel enough to be adopted by a good many Jewish students and faculty members. As for myself, I had at some point drawn a comfortable blanket of indifference over my old uncertainties, which I called tolerance.
All of which is to say that I came into the following situation with little preparation and considerable confusion.
Whyte Road is a quiet-looking street in an outlying section of metropolitan New York. On one side is a long row of brick colonial one-families that were put up just before the war. On the other side, the houses are older and somewhat dilapidated, many of them going back to the period when the area was first settled by Irish families who had made their way up the ladder of the municipal bureaucracies. There are also two small apartment buildings that house working-class families, and between them is a long, low semi-mansion that appears to have inadvertently strayed onto the block from the expensive hills that lie behind it. At the bottom of Whyte Road two tall and rather sleazy apartment houses have recently gone up and brought a number of foreign faces to the neighborhood. At the top is an expanse of woods and grounds that forms the landscape of a fashionable private school. In short, Whyte Road is a diversely representative block. Although its more or less settled life—half-Catholic, half-mixed—is beginning to be nibbled at by the tides of change, there are still no Negroes or Puerto Ricans living there and its dominant tone is still set by the row of brick colonials that gaze out from behind their polished storm windows and rose trellises with composed, if somewhat prim, expressions. It was into one of these houses that we moved, having just come to New York and being mainly concerned about finding a “healthier environment” than that of the Manhattan streets for our two small boys.
Within a short time, it became clear that we represented part of the phalanx of new types that were entering the neighborhood and were going to change it for the worse. Certainly, we had little to commend us as solid middle-class citizens: we moved into the house with very little furniture and were slow to acquire the rest; we were relatively indifferent to the patch of shrubbery in front and the patch of lawn in back; we did not keep regular hours but often typed or played music late at night; we shouted at our children and let them shout at us. My wife was a graduate student; she also wore her hair long and in warm weather liked to go barefoot around the house. All of this seems to have been carefully noticed. Our two boys, ages six and four, who had grown up in the graduate student enclaves and had been left free to develop their own individual manners and fantasies, must have seemed no less strange to the bunch of TV-oriented hellers on the block, ranging from four to eleven, that was known as “the Gang.” Though we gave no wild parties and though I appeared five days a week in the vestments of the young executive, we eventually came to be identified as what passes on Whyte Road for “beatniks.”
Since the house we had rented could have used some external improvements in the way of painting, cementwork, and storm windows, and since we had no reason to make them, it soon acquired something of our own indifferent, provisional air. The only other house in the row that appeared to suffer from similar neglect was owned by an Irish saloon owner named Reilly, who had five young children, four of whom soon proved to be the terrors of the block. However, the baby of the family, a blond, tough-looking angel of five named Sean, soon became fast friends with our four-year-old, Jason, and every so often Reilly’s big white Chrysler would pull up to where my wife was waiting for a bus and in his fierce Irish brogue he would offer to taxi her around. But for all that, our six-year-old, Davy, was regularly getting clobbered by the Gang, which was led by Jimmy Reilly, a lithe, gangling boy of eleven who was already a furtive version of his father. Reilly himself looked like a retired professional football lineman and had, in fact, been a star performer in the rough Irish sport known as hurley. As a father, he was a first-class tyrant, and to see him marching his five children along Whyte Road for their Sunday walk—“stand up straight and none of your nonsense”—was at least partly to understand why Davy was undergoing such a prolonged initiation of shoves, punches, and twisted arms at the hands of Jimmy’s Gang.
Mainly, the Gang consisted of the four Reilly children and whoever else happened to be getting along with them at the time. Timmy, Dennis, and Michael Murphy were usually in, Johnny and Jimmy Loomis were in and out, and Craig and Malcolm Goodman were kept out as much as possible by their parents because the diminutive Craig had had his spleen ruptured during a free-for-all that year with Jimmy and Paddy Reilly. Now and then Davy would be let in for a few hours and would return home with a blissful smile; but more often than not, he was barred from the Loomis’s yard which was the headquarters of the Gang, and since our house was directly across the street, he was eaten up by the sense of being left out. More often, Jason was let into the yard and the Gang, but he, too, spent a good deal of time standing on the other side of the Loomis’s fence while the Gang hammered away at their clubhouse or each other, pausing now and then to tell the two boys to go back to Boston.
Like all the mothers on the block with the exception of Mrs. Reilly—a bizarre-looking recluse, who having spawned this brood seemed to have decided that no further demands were to be made on her—my wife kept a close watch on the doings of the Gang. At any moment a rock fight could break out, or Tommy or Paddy, who was only a year younger and smaller, would suddenly explode and send one of the children home limping or bleeding. In order to protect Davy and perhaps ease his way into the Gang, I began to go out once or twice a weekend to catch Tommy’s “bullet passes,” and, as winter drew on, the Gang’s snowballs. All of which got me accepted, but it didn’t do much good for Davy. He was becoming visibly upset by the situation, and I wavered back and forth between scolding him for not getting along with other children and giving him pep talks and boxing lessons.
During the Christmas season Jason had a birthday party and Sean Reilly came with a present addressed to “Jacob.” It seemed like an innocent mistake, but shortly after that Sean stopped coming to the house to play with him. The Reilly Chrysler now went sailing past my wife as she waited at the bus-stop. I met Tommy Reilly on the way to school one morning and he gave me a dirty smile and said, “How come Davy and Jason are Jews?”
I answered bluntly: “Because I am.”
This seemed to confuse him. “How come you are?”
“Because I want to be.” Certain things began to fall into line and I said in an angry way, “What’s it to you, Tommy?”
“Nothing.” He looked sheepish, and, as I frequently did, I brushed aside the fact that he was making my child miserable and regarded him as a boy with problems of his own, a dumb, troubled kid who was probably being filled with poison by his parents. “It’s okay to be a Jew,” I said gently. “It’s not much different from being Catholic.”
But he seemed even more nervous and perplexed to hear that. “Why don’t you give Davy a break?” I suggested for probably the twentieth time, in one way or another.
“It’s the other kids don’t like him,” he replied for the twentieth time, in one way or another.
We had been living in the neighborhood for five or six months now, and except for the trouble the children were having, our life went along fairly well. Our friends were in Manhattan, but my wife developed a pleasant relationship with some of the other mothers, particularly with Mrs. Murphy, a stronghearted young immigrant with four children and a three-room flat. Her middle son, Dennis, was a toughy who was fazed by nothing, but both the older and younger boys were more “sensitive” as she said, and so she had her own problems with the Reillys. Both Dennis and Michael, who were our children’s age, came frequently to the house, and Davy also began to get on better with the Loomis and Goodman children. It was only when the Reillys were out on the block and the Gang formed again that real trouble would start.
One Saturday morning toward the beginning of spring, I looked out the window to see Davy being hemmed in by five or six boys. Tommy Reilly whispered something to Sean, who then jumped at Davy and doubled him up with a punch to the stomach. Imagining another ruptured spleen, I ran outside. Davy had only had his wind knocked out, but I lost my temper and loudly demanded that the boys stay away from Davy and for that matter from the front of our house. This was a pointless way to handle the Reillys as they made clear a few minutes later when they sent the eight-year-old Annie and Sean to stand in front of the house—their arms folded, their tongues out.
I should have gone out and spanked them hard but I didn’t. In the afternoon, I went down the street to speak to the parents. Mrs. Reilly came to the door in a bathrobe and slowly blinked her eyes at me. My wife had once been invited in for tea and had said it was like visiting a mental patient. So it seemed to me: behind Mrs. Reilly one sensed a house of dim, still, disordered rooms. I said to her that my children and hers weren’t getting on, as perhaps she’d noticed, and asked if she’d mind speaking to them. She had noticed and she minded; her dazed-looking face suddenly hardened. “Yeh, it’s your two brats who is causing all the trouble.” I said it was probably being caused on both sides, but it was my children who were being beaten up. We then got into a useless argument over whether Tommy and Paddy hit five-year-old children. There was no communicating with Mrs. Reilly, and shaking my head, I went back down the steps.
“Don’t shake your head at me, you dirty. . . .”
She didn’t finish it, but in the months that followed her children did. Up until then, my two boys knew they were Jewish in much the same way they knew that they had cousins who lived in Virginia. The previous Christmas Jason had wanted us to put wreaths in the window but forgot about it when he found he was going to a Chanukah party instead. However, being Jewish now began to matter a great deal. They would come home once a month or so with tales of being called a dirty Jew by the Reillys, and since they could see that we were upset by the news, they wanted to know what a Jew really was. I found that I didn’t have much to tell them. Meanwhile, they were picking up some further religious instruction. One evening my wife overheard them carrying on one of their bedtime conversations that went something like this:
Jason: “You know what? Sean says he can do anything he wants now.”
Davy: “Because he’s Irish?”
Jason: “Because he’s been to the Holy Communion. He can swear and everything and it won’t be a “ternal sin.”
Davy: “Big deal.”
Jason: “Do you wish you were Irish?”
Davy: “Of course not. We’re Jewish.”
Jason: “God’s son was Irish. He was
Jewish till he got up on the cross. Then he became Irish.”
Davy: “We don’t believe he was God’s son. He was just a human being.”
Jason: “If he was God’s son, how could the Jewish have catched him? . . .”
Once or twice I asked the advice of my next-door neighbor, who I suspected was once a Jew but now seemed to dabble in Ethical Culture. Still, he was a psychologist and appeared to be an eminently sane man. That the Reilly children were saying “dirty Jew” didn’t trouble him much and he advised me to go slow. “You won’t get anywhere with the old man. He’ll deny it and so will the kids because they’re afraid he’ll kill them.” Then he asked me if I wanted him to try and talk to Reilly. I said no. I’d try to handle it myself.
But I didn’t handle it. I merely blew hot and cold. I would envision taking a firm, aggressive stand (Jews have to hit back: remember Germany) or a detached and patient one (maintain dignity: it’ll blow over if you don’t make it worse). But by the next day, either stand would melt away and I would resume my equivocal behavior. I would tell Davy and Jason to fight back, but then I would pull them into the house and lecture them if they seemed to be starting the trouble. I glared at the Reilly children one weekend; the next, I was out in the street teaching Tommy how to throw a “sinker,” after which I would deliver a few homilies about people getting along together.
My wife reacted differently. What was going on enraged her and she had little use for my conciliatory behavior. To her, the issue of anti-Semitism was simply part of the “crap” that the Reillys were dishing out and that she wasn’t going to take. She believed that Tommy Reilly could be persuaded on religious grounds, and talked to him in a serious way about the sinfulness of his behavior, but otherwise she lashed out in no uncertain terms. At times I thought she was “over-reacting” and said that the Gang would get back at her through the children, that we shouldn’t protect them too much, that they had “to learn to fight their own battles.” I told her to be more detached; she told me to be more concerned; frequently we got into arguments.
Most of the hostility came now from the two youngest Reilly children, Annie and Sean, which seemed to confirm my belief in suasiveness as the best policy. The situation, too, blew hot and cold. For a week, I might come home from work to find the Gang camped on our porch, each of them peacefully being defeated at checkers by Davy and sometimes by Jason. But the following week another incident would erupt: Davy or Jason had been set upon, our maid had been called a “dirty nigger,” Paddy Reilly had screamed abuse at my wife, and the war would be on again for another few days. Meanwhile, I avoided, or rather evaded, a confrontation with Reilly.
But eventually it came. Around the following Christmas, the “dirty Jews” resumed in force and now they were coming from the Murphy and Loomis children as well as from Joey Appello, a seven-year-old in the Murphy’s building who was running with the Gang. I went out one Sunday morning to shovel snow, and there down the block was Reilly directing his three boys. “You’ll get your jaw broken,” I said to myself, but even that seemed better than the miserable feelings of shame and fear that I had been carrying around. I reminded myself that I was not a small man and that I had once been a pretty good boxer. In any case, I had to act. I put down my shovel and walked down the block.
“I want to have a word with you,” I said to Reilly. My voice was surprisingly firm, though one of my feet was jumping madly inside my shoe.
“What about?” He looked me up and down as though I might have been a panhandler.
“Your kids are calling my kids dirty Jews. I think you should make them cut it out.”
“I’m Davy and Jason’s father. I live up the block.” I felt foolish at answering him and hurried on. “Too many Jews have been killed because people didn’t set their children straight.”
He drew himself up to his full height and spread out his shoulders. “Yeah, well now I was in the army, same as-you. I fought for this country. You watch what you’re saying now. You watch your step.”
Up close, his red flaring face had a good deal of fat in it. If it came to that, I saw it was a face you could hit and hurt. Perhaps I was even seeing in that fat a trace of the coward who was supposed to live inside each bully. I met his eyes and said, “Would you like your children to be called ‘micks’? Would you like them to be pushed around because they’re Irish?”
“Push my boys around?” He narrowed his eyes. “Don’t you try any of that stuff now.”
He called over the older boys who, white with fear, denied that they ever would use such words as “dirty Jew.” We passed on to Sean. At this, Reilly’s cheeks trembled with rage. “Why he’s just a baby!”
I moved back a step and clenched my fist, but no blows were struck. It ended with each of us demanding that the other keep his kids “where they belong.” This was not what I had come to demand. I knew that an hour from now the Reilly children would be standing on the line that separated my share of the sidewalk from my neighbor’s and would remind my wife or myself that it was a free country. I hadn’t settled anything; I had merely lunged into an argument that I had no strength to conclude. I went back up the street with the feeling that another Jew, firmer in his sense of outrage or steadier in his convictions, would have driven the matter to a better conclusion, would have broken through those tenacious, stupid responses with stronger words or a good punch to the face. I pondered the matter as carefully as I could. Was it merely that I had been afraid of him because he was somewhat bigger than I was and probably handier with his fists? Not entirely. Earlier in my life, I would have swallowed the same fear, and driven by rage would have offered to fight and would have gone through with it. The issue was what had happened to my power to feel rage at such a man. The truth was that I had fallen immediately into the same indecisiveness I had fallen into with his children. All my combative feelings from the past were gone—or, rather, were buried under the soft, deep layers of liberal tolerance and reasonableness, and also of self-irony about standing up as a Jew. My physical cowardice could have been overcome; it was the moral cowardice I was discovering in myself that appalled me. The real issue was whether “dirty Jew” meant anything else to me in my thirty-second year of easy assimilated life than would hearing that my children were being called “dirty Russians.” If it meant nothing else, then I had worked up a spurious outrage, which had betrayed me, instead of accepting the consequences of my detachment. To do so would have been to follow the advice of my neighbor and deal with the Reillys as nothing more than a neighborhood nuisance. On the other hand, if I was all that committed to Jewish loyalty, then I had allowed myself to be betrayed into a false tolerance instead of accepting the consequences of a deliberate, intransigent opposition to the Reillys, which meant making use of whatever measures were available. Either way, I would have been a support to my children. As it was, I could only pass on to them my sickly confusion about Jewish loyalty and my fear of consequences.
But I still came to no real resolution, and from that point on, as though in judgment of my behavior, our situation on the block deteriorated and the hostility spread. By April, my wife was fighting Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Loomis, and their children were frequently as insolent to us and as tormenting to our children as the Reillys were. Otherwise, the neighbors seemed as wary of us as they were of the Reillys: the main thing was that the peace on the block was being disturbed. During the week of Easter vacation, there were several incidents. Kimmy, a little Korean boy who had recently moved into the neighborhood and had become Davy’s and Jason’s one friend, began to be pushed around and called a “dirty Chinese.” Our maid, Ruth, brought her three-year-old daughter with her one day and sent her out to play. In a short while she was surrounded by the Gang. “Little nigger, how come your hands are so dirty?” they chanted. “Little nigger, go back where you came from.” Ruth rushed outside with blood in her eyes, but the taunts continued from the Loomis’s front steps where the Gang—unhampered by their parents—were to take up a more or less permanent position for the rest of the week. Facing them, on our steps, sat the enemy—Davy, Jason, Kimmy, and Sherry. An hour later, the Gang raced across the street, grabbed Jason’s rifle, and carried it off to the Reillys’ house. Ruth gathered the four children together and marched off to the Reillys’ to get back the gun. Just then Mr. and Mrs. Reilly returned from Holy Week Services and a wild argument broke out in the street.
“You better get out of here before I turn you over to the FBI,” shouted Reilly.
“You’re gonna turn who over?” said Ruth.
“You. You’re working for them Communist agents up the street. They’ve got you over here to stir up trouble.”
“Oh Christ,” said Ruth. “How do you know they’re Communists?”
“Ah, she’s always running off somewhere. Up to no good, I’ll tell you that.”
Ruth laughed in his face.
“You better go back where you come from,” shouted Reilly. “I’ll have you put in jail. We don’t want your kind around here.”
“You big bag of wind,” said Ruth. “Who do you think you’re talking to? You think I’m afraid of you?”
“I’ve got plenty of money and I’ll get you put in jail where you belong.”
“Well, I’ll first hit you over the head with this rifle, like you deserve.”
So the incident was reported to me that evening. The next evening I came home to hear that my wife and the children had been followed down the block by ten or twelve children screaming, “Heil Hitler. Go back to Russia, you dirty Communists.”
Clearly, something had to be done. I called St. Anne’s, the parish church and school, and arranged to see a priest the following evening. I asked Mr. Hahn, Kimmy’s father, if he wished to go with me. He was quite willing. I then called up Alex Goodman, who the day before had had to pull Tommy Reilly off his already spleen-less son Craig. Alex, a careful man who was a home-owner on the block, thought I was doing the right thing, but declined to go with us. “It’ll be too much like ganging up,” he said. “But if you need any corroborating testimony, I’ll be glad to provide it.”
The next evening Mr. Hahn and I drove over to St. Anne’s. Father Donley received us in the rectory and said that he had only a few minutes but would be very glad to speak to us. I rapidly told him of the events of the past week and some of the background of our relations with the Reillys. Then Mr. Hahn, a shy but precise physicist, spoke of Kimmy’s problems on the block.
Father Donley heard us out, and meditated for a moment with a slight frown and pursed lips. Then, in a voice that seemed permanently softened by all the suasive words it had spoken, he said: “Well, if our children are saying these things, it’s in spite of what we teach them and not because of what we teach them.”
I said I was willing to believe that. Still the fact remained that four of his children had been infected with vicious teachings in their home and were infecting other of his children.
He nodded. “Of course that is of concern to us. Now what shall we do about it?”
“Mr. Reilly seems to be a pious man,” I said, “We thought he might listen to you.”
“But then again, he may deny everything you’ve told me.”
I said that I wouldn’t be surprised. “The best way might be to meet with Mr. Reilly and several of us from the block.”
Father Donley thought that might be a good possibility. “Now how do you spell his name? Is it R-i-l-e-y or R-e-i-l-l-y. It might even be R-e-i-l-l-e-y.”
I didn’t know.
“Hmm, that’s a problem then. It would be very helpful to know the correct spelling.”
Mr. Hahn suggested that there was probably only one family with that name living in the 5500 block on Whyte Road.
“Now you say that he has four children in our school. What are their names and grades?”
I gave the names and guessed at the grades.
“Well, I’ll try to say a word to each of them when school resumes. It’s Easter vacation, you know.” He stood up and smiled at Mr. Hahn, then smiled at me.
I asked him if he would like my phone number so that he could call me when he had arranged a meeting with Mr. Reilly.
“Oh yes. That would be very helpful.”
I reiterated that the situation on the block was growing very tense and that it might be a good idea to call Mr. Reilly as soon as possible.
Father Donley nodded. “I quite understand. These things do have a way of getting out of hand, don’t they?”
In the days that followed, the children played in the backyard with Kimmy, and I waited for Father Donley to call. I didn’t think he would and I was right. Possibly he spoke to Reilly or the children, for the block settled down again, though this may also have been due to the removal of Tommy Reilly to a hospital where he was treated for several weeks for his “ammonia.”
After the events of Easter week, my wife and I stayed apart from the neighborhood and kept to a firm line. Along with Ruth, we encouraged the children to fight back. No boxing lessons now: merely the consistent permission to hit. One day Davy suddenly whaled the tar out of the younger Loomis boy, who had been bullying him for the past twenty months, and after that things began to go a bit more smoothly for him on the block. After a month or two my wife and I thought we saw progress in the improved relations between the children and the Gang. It was then that we weakened. To Davy’s seventh birthday party we invited some of his new friends from the Gang. None of them came.
That evening the area around our house was buzzing again. The Gang moved up and down the street, casting smirks at us and singing “Happy birthday, damn Davy.” The following day, the Gang became the Club. Each of them sported an army divisional patch that they had picked up from somewhere. All the children on the block were included—except ours, the Goodmans’, and Kimmy. It was a wild day, full of marching and scheming and sudden fights. Alex Goodman demanded that his two boys be given patches and be let into the Club. I don’t know whether he succeeded or not; my wife regarded him with contempt and told our boys about the Nazis. The next day we went to the beach, and that evening were dressing to go out when we heard Jason’s unmistakable scream. Half-dressed, I ran outside. Down the block the Club was bunched in the middle of the street. As they ran away I saw Jason lying there and Joey Appello giving him a final kick in the head, TV-style.
I picked up my screaming child and carried him home. Somehow he had escaped serious injury, and though bruised and badly frightened, he was soon describing in cheerful detail how he had been lured away from the house. I finished dressing and went outside. It was dark now and the street deserted. I walked down Whyte Road. My rage had already drained away and was replaced now by an immense feeling of fear and defeat. I had been weak again, and again one of my children had already paid for it. What would happen next? I was looking for the Appellos’ apartment, but I stopped before I got to the building. What would I say? “Mr. Appello, your boy just kicked my boy in the head.” Would saying that do anything? I felt that behind the darkened windows on each side of the street, the whole neighborhood was watching and laughing at me. I turned around and walked slowly back to the house. A few minutes before, I had said to my wife that we were living in a nightmare. But at this moment the poisonous and violent ill will toward us that festered under the placid surface of Whyte Road seemed less dangerous to my sons than the liberal weakness and evasiveness, the Jewish guilt and self-hatred that lay beneath my “good intentions.”
A few days later the entire Reilly family went to Ireland, and shortly thereafter we moved away from Whyte Road. The night before the Reillys left, I was walking up the street and saw Reilly and Tommy coming toward me. I had no more scruples to honor and little fear, and I looked at both of them with a steady, direct contempt. But as I drew near, I was startled to see Reilly give me a nod and a slight smile. Before I could control them, my own facial muscles twitched, and as we passed each other for the last time, I imagine that we looked more like accomplices than enemies.
In the months that have since passed, I have tried to fathom the experience and to prepare myself in case I should meet a similar one in the future. Some people to whom I have described these incidents have told me that the trouble was merely “interpersonal,” that our problems there stemmed from being different rather than from being Jewish, that this was not real anti-Semitism. Someone else argued that I had merely proved his point that anti-Semitism is no longer a social problem but an “existential” one. All of which is perhaps apposite but misses what I think is the main point.
The general ill will in men toward otherness, which I don’t think ever decreases appreciably on Whyte Road or elsewhere, has among its traditional outlets resentment toward Jews. In the past twenty years, this outlet has closed to some extent; further the more threatening pressures of the cold war and of northern integration have deflected much of this ill-will past the Jews to the Communists and Negroes. But in the mind of Reilly and the others these outlets are not very far apart. Given enough local tension and resentment the Jewish outlet opens again, the use of it spreads, and the familiar pattern of enmity, aggression, and violence establishes itself. In this case, it was mainly restricted to the children, but there’s no question in my mind that The Gang were acting out their parents’ fantasies.
All of this went no further than Whyte Road, but there are many Whyte Roads in America and by and large they still must represent the dominant social community. Given a severe source of tension and resentment such as a depression, one wonders how the Jews, with their current wealth and economic influence, would fare. In sum, I do not think that the Jews are quite so protected as we would like to believe, or that the enlightened atmosphere of the interfaith conferences and committees is all that expressive of even current social realities.
As for myself, I worry about that tiny reflex of a smile that Reilly’s greeting produced. It means that there are still confusions and cowardices in myself with which I have not yet come to terms. Some of these, no doubt, have little to do with being Jewish; on the other hand, I do not think that my indecisiveness in the situation was an uncharacteristic contemporary Jewish reaction. After all, we got no support from the five or six other Jewish families on the block. Without going into the historical issues of the current debate about the Jewish capacity for resistance, I would say that the half-way house of incomplete assimilation, which many of the recent generation have reached, can foster the dangerous kind of ambivalence and malaise that marked my own behavior.
As for other attitudes, I think that Ruth and my wife were right and the Goodmans were wrong in their respective ways of dealing with the Reillys and the neighborhood. There are some kinds of trouble that it pays to stir up. As for tactics, I think I was right to go to Father Donley and wrong not to go further: to bring in the local rabbis, the Jewish defense agencies, and whoever else could be of help. In short, “ganging-up,” to use Alex Goodman’s term.
However, I am no expert in these matters and have only my own experience to go on. Among all the other open questions in our life today, anti-Semitism is certainly not the most pressing one or the easiest to confront. But there it is, and sooner or later you, too, may have to take a stand.